The Auslese Alchemist

Photo credit Torsten Schmidt

People imagined him to be an alchemist. Granted, it wasn’t gold his slender hands were currently molding, rather a gleaming tinted zinc capsule, encompassing perfect angles and gracing the long slender neck of a curvaceous body. While such language might seem passé in 2021,  the characters who regularly participated in such frolics were not. Many were successful, most of them hailing from families older than the states whose passports they’d carry in their bespoke suits. Make no mistake: even here, the wealthier they were, the less attention to proper attire; and don’t let us get started on the unshaven angel investor from Hamburg openly displaying his white ribbed undershirt with its loosened buttons only an hour into any soirée.

Every single one of them longed to be tempted, loved to be seduced; that much he knew better than anyone at these dinners. The guests’ hands trembled as they glided down the vessels, freshly lubricated with drops of moisture, beckoning with things to come. Glistening textile, paper thin, suggesting mystic provenances, announcing tantalizing pleasures. 

Gold wasn’t the only thing here heralding a form the content couldn’t back up. Magic, as it was more mundanely dubbed, had fascinated him ever since he first received Ali Bongo’s Mein Ganz Geheimes Zauberbuch (“My Entirely Secret Book of Magic) from a well-intentioned grandmother in the early 1980s. Up until then, wizards were mere lore from Ottfried Preussler’s Hotzenplotz saga or the even more mysterious tales from 1001 Nights, awkward metaphors printed in bizarre typesets from an East German edition obtained at a Mainz flea market some time around the boycotted Moscow Olympics. And shimmering like the gold in the medal his father had never had the chance to win (neither there nor four years later in Los Angeles, albeit for very different reasons), was the juice, the stainless steel funnel channeled into the bottle’s neck as he poured a dusty container’s content through a Coravin, ensuring there was as little oxygen contacting the liquid as possible.  

An untampered bottle with a decent fill level was the holy grail for the Indiana Joneses of the wine world.

He still wore the Jack Wolfskin Fleece he had walked the streets in earlier. Were he half as smart as he claimed to be, he’d know how borderline genius this move was. The ultimate camouflage would have been to reach for Engelbert-Strauss, the true worker’s choice, but one might still argue that the fleece was the country man’s uniform when heading into “the big city” — and Wiesbaden was at least Hessen’s state capital.

The “v” in Carsten v. Bondarenko started as a practical joke. The first iteration was a remnant from a drunken scribble Carsten “with a C” had thrown into a piece of paper, recording a bet some early Sunday morning during the days when debates couldn’t be settled with a quick Google search. Someone figured, led astray by the mildly bougie “with a C”, that it was a modest abbreviation of a “von“, hinting at a noble heritage out of fashion in the post-war Federal Republic of Germany. A nation still trying to find its feet, struggling with any allusions to grandeur and heritage from a time that was at least at first sight a little less complicated than recent decades. An easy crowd for the son of a Ukrainian couple arriving here at the height of the Cold War.

Photo credit Torsten Schmidt

But that was decades ago now, as he opened the door to this basement below the former Nassauische Sparkasse just short of midnight, knowing too well how few people would be walking the streets during the pandemic at this hour. The past months he’d had to change his routine. At whatever folks would consider more normal times, he’d be hiding in plain sight, entering during shopping hours, walking in the necessary ingredients in inconspicuous shopping bags over the course of several days. With the city’s commercial center being so close, no one imagined anything untoward. Once past the gates, the massive steel doors sucked up everything that was going outside, as little as that may be these days. 

His apron’s flaps weren’t even tied properly. He had thrown it on simply as a bizarre nod to a laboratory scientist’s ethic, neither of which was his foremost concern. But, on the other hand, it had once been his father’s, ensuring at least the suggestion of proximity — even if the truth is that they had long ago failed to create anything remotely akin to such wretchedness.

The one thing they had in common was a love for vintage wines. Not only the taste and the enological archaeology of it, but also the grandeur, the crowds, the cachet. While he had been in the trade of sourcing and selling sought-after wines for a few years now, it had only slowly dawned on him how fast the ferocious appetites of wannabe collectors and connoisseurs had risen in recent years.

Sure, at this point any semi-successful clerk at an investment firm with an expense account could differentiate the main layers of Burgundies. Any production plant owner east of Shenzhen had had his fair share of Bordeaux to reach for if the highly prized bottle of Ponsot was (or often enough wasn’t) delivering what the label promised. And if you were in the vicinity of any self-respecting atheist suspected to be stood up — even if the Chinese may herald counterfeiting as an art, a stance Carsten could fully sympathize with — you’d better be as well trained a runner as his dad was. Yesteryear’s known stars of the genre had too quickly fallen prey to their own successes. Their charms, the lavish nights, it was all too good to be true and thus their sensational finds had occurred a few times too often, a little too quickly — until they were sentenced to focus their widely acclaimed olfactory senses more on the wavering  scents in certain mildly overcrowded showers.

He had to aim further back, making his craft all the more complicated. Damn globalization.

He was supposed to meet a client on Thursday over at the Casino, yet another  Wiesbaden building spared the RAF’s blistering bombardments as their American friends had made it very clear which city they were planning to hold fort in once the  madness of WWII had subsided. Never again would they leave this gem of an old spa  town to their French compatriots. After all, it was they who had shot in from overseas, who had had to bear the major brunt of Europe’s liberation and when they got there, were shown only emptied caves, where once the world’s finest wines had been stored. Despite the buildings hardly being a century old, all this seemed to echo worlds long gone. Now, it was an international panache of no-gooders, a full circle back to the days when Russian aristocracy partied away their clan’s heritage at the infamous Spielbank Wiesbaden.

None of the folks congregating there later in the week were under suspicion of  lighting up the grand piano or similar 1920s debauchery, but oh would he deliver something special. Normally, he’d prefer working the bigger formats, at least the standard issue three-quarters of a liter. But when possible, he’d go for the special sizes. Given the very slim chances of someone calling his bluff — particularly considering the social circumstances under which any of these bottles would be opened, if ever — self-proclaimed scholars could always point (in Yul Brynner’s voice, he imagined) to the differences in storing circumstances, cork anomalies caused by the custom production for the unusual sizes, the different timelines in oxidation when opening large formats, etc, etc, etc.

Photo credit Torsten Schmidt

Today, he had to work more on something a little more delicate: a 375 milliliter bottle, completing a perfect trio of Trockenbeerenauslesen such as the world had not seen or drunk in decades, there to crown a night of vintage auction bottles re-sold from Rheinland-Pfalz’s main growing areas. While most of these had grown too precious to be obtained, he knew he had to offer something collectors would be willing to cop. Especially if there were just enough rumors floating about, rumours of a few more of such precious bottles within reachable distance. Suggesting that it was a possibly repeatable pleasure, given the right price and right phone numbers — and maybe the reassuring view over on the shelves next to him, all necessary ingredients waiting around in a nondescript cardboard box. 

So he had obtained an original bottle of a legendary 1976 Graacher Himmelreich  years ago when he raided a local Sparkassen clerk’s private collection, the teary  widow almost on her knees in gratitude when he offered a full one-and-a-half thousand in crisp euro bills for the entire contents of their dusty basement PLUS clearing it all with his own hands. That afternoon, he made three runs with his trusty, unassuming 90s three series BMW station wagon: two and a half straight to the neighboring village’s glass recycling container, and half a trunk-load to his headquarters in this now-defunct Wiesbaden bank vault. 

As if the vulture antics weren’t enough, the moment he had heard of the final demise of yet another iconic Mosel vintner, he had his henchmen targeting staff who’d worked with the heirs, now operating in different estates. And what do you know, only a few weeks later, someone must have gotten access to some basement somewhere and he obtained a nice selection of Brauneberger Juffer from just the right vintages in various quality brackets. Which indeed had set him back considerably, but nothing compared to the gains he’d rake in with what he currently had in his hands. This would all make for perfect source material, and even deliver its own cloaks and daggers. The bottle still empty, it featured the scribblings of the Scharzhofberger estate, for generations home to yet another dynasty of emblematic producers, widely recognized as Germany’s premier home to botrytis-blessed raisins of the heavenly sort. A wine that would give any French dessert beverage a run for its money, no matter what a first-generation U.S. politician might have written about their ancestors. And speaking of mundane details like money, his clientele would rarely fail to feel impressed by the records these sweet selections would put on the board at the VDP’s annual auction. To find an untampered bottle with a decent fill level was one of the holy grails for the Indiana Joneses of the wine world. The still-empty flasks in the Turkish knock-off Hugo Boss box rattled as he accidentally tapped it with his forefoot in mild excitement.

As much as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and various blowhard Internet outlets had drowned the markets, his random yet regular listings in local classifieds, laid out amongst all the drama and sob stories around the prides of generations past, led him to respectable bottles and considerable quantities of well-stored product of lesser- known appellations and long-forgotten producers. And if the alchemists’ gods were particularly generous to him, it would be what he considered a jackpot: a bottle bearing the name of one of the great vineyards, sometimes even from a drinkable year, just vinified by a producer who by now might only be remembered by tax accountants, family, and old foes.

Every one of them longed to be tempted, loved to be seduced; that much he knew better than anyone.

Nicole Croisille’s “Telephoner-moi” morphed into Sylvie Vartan’s “L‘amour c‘est  comme une cigarette” as it played from the worn-out speaker on the shelves, their inlays of bloating pressed-up fibres subtly rattling as the orchestra’s lower registers joined in. He had stopped smoking years ago, so as not to jeopardize his critical sense of smell. Call him paranoid, but he made sure not to deliver any mobile carrier any data while he was working down here. For now, no one could know when and how this could ever be turned against him, but a man like him surely needed to plan ahead if he wanted to stay in business. Nights like these had gotten rarer, most of his  pandemic trade consisted of more mediocre bottles. The mark-up on the individual ones wasn’t particularly high, but people like to drink, even when they felt fenced in at home, and in order to impress their perceived social media friends and foes, folks had to reach for more and more eccentric labels. But who’d waste a four-, maybe five-digit splash on a night with only themselves and their iPhone as company. The grandiose offerings would instead be saved in the desperate hope that some time sooner than later, there’d be social occasions again where larger calibers found gobs happy to gargle together.

The fleece’s arm soaked up the sweat from his forehead as he held the jug up towards the light. Who on earth would realize that the Graacher Himmelreich now beaming on the former bank director’s desk behind these steel walls, shielding them from the pandemic reality and noisy noses, would actually contain a Wehlener Sonnenuhr BA from the same cellar and vintage, and not a shabby sweet wine at all, sporting many of the known characteristics even the most sinister demagogues amongst the hedonists would noisily look out for — that he had emptied last Monday, when he was clearing betting debts this owner of a Rheingau eatery still held against him. 

By now, recapping Mosel had become second nature to him. The crowd was still kind of small, the only relatively slowly growing reputation of German high-end wines gave him a head start of a couple of years while the counteractions against the worldwide race of scaramouches experimenting in faux French had attracted just a little too much attention. The high-tech thrown into the bottles by the stock market-listed conglomerates now owning these century-old family houses hadn’t made it any  easier. He had to aim further and further back, which made his craft all the more complicated. Damn this globalization.

Tonight’s production — or rather the crowd it was custom-made for — promised  earnings for a good while to come. And that much he had learned over the past years,  these folks always had “friends,” those they needed to impress and especially those  trying to one-up them, so whoever got into this race always pulled a whole motley crew behind them, ushering in more eager customers he happily serviced; even if he had to use middle wo/men in order to grant them the joy of discovery of their very own  delectable fountain of faux juice. So as the Bluetooth speaker flipped to “Qu‘est-ce que je faire avec ma vie,” he knewno one would seriously wonder why he paid special attention to the finishing details, as once he had them hooked, who knew where all of this would end?

“The Auslese Alchemist” is the prologue to the author’s forthcoming TJLB – Tastes Just Like Burgundy

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